The newly restored 90-year-old Virginia Theatre, here in Champaign-Urbana, is a magnificent old-fashioned movie palace, with a curving balcony, gold-leaf detailing, an organ, and a 56-foot screen. Seeing films in this environment, especially when every seat in the house is full, is a profound experience. There's nothing like the sound of 1,463 people listening. Or all bursting into laughter as one. It's how the movies were meant to be seen.
And it's certainly how "He Who Gets Slapped" (1924) was meant to be seen, especially accompanied by the innovative Alloy Orchestra, a three-man band (Terry Donahue, Ken Winokur, and Roger Miller) playing a variety of instruments who have devoted their careers to writing and performing scores for classic silent films. Directed by great Swedish director Victor Seastrom (originally Victor Sjöström) during his time in the United States, and starring the superb Lon Chaney, "He Who Gets Slapped" was a critical and financial success. It was an incredible experience, being able to see it on that gigantic screen surrounded by a crowd, as well as to have it be underscored beautifully by live musicians right there in the room with us.
Kristen Thompson (author, critic, Honorary Fellow in the Department of Communication Arts at University of Wisconsin-Madison; she also co-helms the great blog Observations on Film Art with David Bordwell) introduced "He Who Gets Slapped," providing the larger context of the film in her brief comments. The film was, said Thompson, the "first script-to-screen" MGM movie. It was created as a vehicle for Lon Chaney, who had already had quite a bit of success, but it was "He Who Gets Slapped" that "cemented his stardom." MGM production head Irving Thalberg was instrumental in hiring Seastrom (whose Swedish films Thalberg admired), as well as casting choices, in particular a young starlet named Norma Shearer who would go on to become a giant star, known as "The First Lady of MGM." Shearer and Thalberg would marry in 1927. Adapted from the popular Leonid Andreyev-scripted Theatre Guild production, Thompson said that "[He Who Gets Slapped] was a prestige picture, created to put the new studio on the map." And it did.
"He Who Gets Slapped" tells the story of Paul Beaumont, a scientist (Lon Chaney) whose research is stolen by his benefactor, in a devastating scene of public betrayal where Beaumont is slapped across the face. To add insult to injury, Beaumont's oily fur-coat-wearing benefactor also steals his wife. A ruined man, subjected to the jeering heckles of his colleagues (presented in a surreal fashion, the entire screen filled with laughing faces), Beaumont flees to the circus, becoming a clown (named only "He") whose popular act involves him getting slapped multiple times, all as the audience howls in laughter. He falls in love with a bareback rider named "Consuelo" (played by Norma Shearer), who shows him some kindness, sewing his fake cloth heart back onto his costume, in a beautiful, tender scene. Unfortunately, Consuelo loves another, her fellow stunt rider, Bezano (John Gilbert).
Lon Chaney made a career out of playing "grotesques," having enormous successes as the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the Phantom of the Opera, as well as playing other clowns, most memorably in the devastating "Laugh, Clown, Laugh." What is so extraordinary about his work is its deep grounding in utter tragedy, his ability to let the mask fall, the persona fall, to show the agony underneath. There are some scenes in "Laugh, Clown, Laugh" where you want to look away to give him privacy in his grief. The same thing happens in "He Who Gets Slapped," where he plays a character devoted to re-living his own humiliation, yet now twisting it into an asset, an "act." His pain at betrayal is palpable, tears flowing down his face, his great lanky body hunched over himself, self-protectively. He was a phenomenal actor, made more apparent by seeing him projected so large. Norma Shearer and John Gilbert are both wonderful as the young lovers dealing with their own struggles in romance.
The film is a masterpiece of editing, with some thrillingly tense sequences (one involving a hungry ferocious lion), as well as surreal, almost abstract touches; one being the repeating image of Chaney, in full clown get-up, laughing maniacally as he spins a colored, striped, circus ball. The image keeps returning, looking more and more tragic with each repetition.
The Alloy Orchestra's score was amazing, funny, rousing and sensitive. The musicians sat down in the orchestra pit, facing the screen, and their instruments are varied, many and strange. The size and diversity of the sound was striking. It was hard to believe it was only three guys. There were repeated motifs, explored and deepened as the film went on. The circus theme was rousing, manic, and hilarious, and the love theme was a minor-key keen of longing, bringing the melancholy heart of the story to the surface.
After the film, musicians Terry Donahue and Ken Winokur joined Kristen Thompson and Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips onstage for a Q&A about the film and their process as composers. The Alloy Orchestra had seen "He Who Gets Slapped" at the Telluride Film Festival and knew immediately that they wanted to work on a score for it. The Alloy Orchestra carefully considers how many "sound effects" they want to do in any given score. If a guy is bonked over the head with a frying pan, then obviously they will create that effect, but choices need to be made along the way about how much of it they want to do. Winokur said, "It is our effort to not steal the limelight from the actors. ['He Who Gets Slapped'] is a twisted film and we wanted to get into the spirit of that." Donahue observed that there is "a lot of delicate stuff in this film," and the score needed to reflect that.
It was a great pleasure to be present, to experience the film, in that particular way, with those beautiful musicians providing the "underscoring". The film still lives, and plays like a bat out of hell to a live audience. There were moments of profound shared silence, as the audience took in the great tragic spectacle of Lon Chaney's performance, as well as sudden bursts of laughter at comedic bits, and, beautifully, cheers and claps when one of the bad guys got what he deserved.
Winokur said during the discussion afterwards that the Alloy Orchestra aren't "trying to go back in time to when the picture was made. We are trying to bridge that gap in time."
Yesterday afternoon, at the beautiful Virginia Theatre, with a packed house, that mission was accomplished.